Gateway to the Classics: Our Empire Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Empire Story by  H. E. Marshall

The French in India

While year by year British trade in India had been growing greater, another European country had begun to try and gain a footing there too. This country was France. And in India, as in Canada, the French and British were to struggle for power.

Almost at the same time as the British founded their East India Company, the French founded one too. But for one reason or another they were not fortunate, and it was not until many years later, in 1688, that the first French factory was set up in India. This, like the first of the British, was at Surat.

But besides having all the usual difficulties with native princes to get over, the French had to fight the British and also the Dutch. Both by land and sea the Dutch beat the French, and drove them again and again out of the factories which they tried to found.

At length the French bought a piece of ground from a native prince about a hundred miles south of Madras. Here they built a fort and town, which they called Pondicherry, and at last began to prosper.

The French settlement was very small, and they were everywhere surrounded by enemies. So the leader, whose name was Martin, asked the native prince to allow him to have some native soldiers. The native prince was very friendly, so he gladly agreed to give him three hundred men. Martin was the first white man who had thought of making use of the Indians as soldiers, and it was found that when they were properly drilled and had European officers they made splendid soldiers.

Besides drilling these men and teaching them order and obedience, Martin made use of them as colonists. He gave each man a piece of land and encouraged him to till it, and to set up looms and weave muslins and other stuffs which he wanted for his trade.

For nineteen years the French colony prospered. But the Dutch were determined to hunt them out. At home they were fighting with the French, and one day they appeared before Pondicherry with a fleet and an army large enough to conquer a whole state.

The French were helpless. Against this great army there were thirty-four Frenchmen, three hundred native soldiers and only six guns. Yet, few though they were, Martin and his brave men held out for twelve days. But the Dutch surrounded them both by land and sea. They were starving, and gave in.

The French, having promised that they would all go back to France, were allowed to march out of their well-defended little fort with all the honours of war, The native soldiers were allowed to go where they liked.

This seemed to be the end of French power in India. But four years later peace was signed between the Dutch and the French, and one of the conditions of the treaty was that Pondicherry should be given back to the French. This was done, and once more the French returned.

For some years after this the British, Dutch and French traders lived almost in peace. But all around them, among the native princes, there was constant war. Kingdoms rose and fell, rulers mounted thrones and were hurled again from them, "The country being all in warrs and broyles."

Then in 1744 the French and British went to war at home. This was the war of the Austrian succession. And not content with fighting at home, they carried the war into their colonies.

At this time a very clever Frenchman named Dupleix was governor of Pondicherry. He did not want to fight, and he tried to make the British president at Madras agree to keep peace, even though their kings at home were fighting.

But the British president knew that ships and men were being sent from home to help him to fight the French, and he would not agree to be at peace. Dupleix was in despair. He had begun to fortify Pondicherry, but the walls were not even finished. He had only a garrison of about four hundred men and one little warship. He knew that when the British ships with their heavy guns arrived, his town would be pounded to bits in a very short time.

The French had always kept on very good terms with the native rulers. So now in his need Dupleix asked the Nawab Anwaru-Din to help him. Dupleix had more than once helped the Nawab when he had been in trouble, and now he sent him handsome presents. Anwaru-Din was so pleased that he at once sent a message to the governor of Madras saying that he would not allow the French to be hurt, and that he would allow no fighting within his dominions.

The British thought they were not strong enough to fight the French and the Nawab too, so they left Pondicherry alone. The British fleet, when it arrived, sailed away again, and, instead of taking the town, the Admiral contented himself with attacking French trading ships on the sea, in that way doing a great deal of damage to the French trade.

Meanwhile another Frenchman named La Bourdonnais had, with great difficulty, got together a little fleet of ships, and he came sailing to help Dupleix.

One July day the French and the British fleets met. From four o'clock until the sun went down, they fought. But although the French lost most men, it was neither a defeat nor a victory for either side. Yet next day, in spite of the fact that they had the best of the position, the British sailed away and left Madras to its fate, Had they but known it, La Bourdonnais, although he was making such a brave show, had food left for only one day, and nearly all his powder and shot was done.

The news of the battle reached Madras together with the news that the British fleet had sailed away, and that soon the French might be expected to appear before the town.

Madras was almost as unprotected as Pondicherry. The walls were weak and there were scarcely three hundred men to protect them. So the British president, in his turn, sent to the Nawab for help. But, forgetting that it was useless to ask anything of a native without giving him something, the president sent him no present. This the Nawab looked upon as almost an insult, and he did nothing.

It was not long before the French ships appeared before Madras, and after three days' fighting the president gave in. Everything became the property of the French, the town, the fort, and all that they contained, gold, silver and merchandise. But La Bourdonnais agreed that the British should be allowed to buy back their town for a large sum of money. Meanwhile they became prisoners of war. The Union Jack was hauled down and the French lilies floated in its place.

But now, as soon as he heard of what had happened, Anwaru-Din was angry. Although he had done nothing to help the British, he had not meant that they should be driven away altogether. So the very day that Madras surrendered he sent an angry message to Dupleix saying that if he did not stop fighting at once he would send an army against Pondicherry.

Dupleix knew very well how to manage the Indians. So he told Anwaru-Din that if the town were taken it should be given to him. With this the Nawab was quite satisfied.

Thus Madras was promised to two people. La Bourdonnais had promised to sell it back to the British, and Dupleix had promised it to the Nawab.

Neither Dupleix nor La Bourdonnais would give way, and these two men who had worked so well for their country, quarrelled.

And while they quarrelled a great storm shattered the French fleet, and much of the spoil taken from Madras was lost. At last, with such of his ships as remained to him, La Bourdonnais sailed home. "My part is taken regarding Madras," he wrote. "I give it up to you. I have signed the treaty. It is for you to keep my word. I am so disgusted with this wretched Madras, that I would give an arm never to have set foot in it."

Meanwhile the Nawab had been growing more and more angry as week after week went past, and he saw no sign of Dupleix keeping his promise and handing Madras over to him. Dupleix did really mean to keep his promise, but he wanted to destroy the walls first. He wanted to drive the British out of India altogether, and he saw that unless the fortifications were destroyed, it would be easy for the Nawab to give the town back to the British, if he liked, and the French would be no better off than before.

While the quarrel with La Bourdonnais went on, Dupleix could do nothing. Now it was too late, for the angry Nawab had gathered his troops and was marching against Madras, which was by this time garrisoned with French soldiers.

Anwaru-Din made no doubt of crushing these impudent, faithless Europeans, as with ten thousand soldiers, with horses and elephants, and all the glitter and splendour of an eastern army, he closed round Madras.

To meet this host, four hundred men, bringing with them two cannon, marched out of the town.

The white turbaned, brilliant, Indian horsemen dashed upon this handful of men. But suddenly the French ranks divided. There was a roar of cannon and the foremost Indian horsemen lay dead.

The Indians were startled and confused, and before they could recover, the Frenchmen had fired again and yet again.

Such warfare as this was new to the Indian warriors. They indeed had cannon, but they were so old and clumsy that they were more dangerous to those who fired them than to anyone else. And if they were fired once in a quarter of an hour, that seemed to them very quick work. They had never dreamed that it was possible to fire a cannon four or five times in a minute.

Panic seized upon the Indian horsemen. They turned and fled. Soon the whole army was fleeing in utter rout, leaving their tents and baggage in the hands of the French.

For the first time the Indians had found out how powerful the white-faced traders were, and as they fled they told their tale of wonder, and spread their terror everywhere around.

Dupleix now took complete possession of Madras. It was neither given to the Nawab nor sold back to the British. Many of the British were taken prisoner to Pondicherry. Others fled in the night and took refuge at Fort St. David, another British station about twelve miles south of Pondicherry. Among these was a young man named Robert Clive.

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